Jennifer Coe Fulton ’93 found her calling decades after graduation and models service to others.
Those who knew her at the College of Saint Benedict might never have thought Jennifer Coe Fulton ’93 would one day become a priest. By the time she was 19, she had rejected faith, God and the Catholic Church. She was the rabble rouser in theology class who would challenge the professor.
“I was always asking questions,” Fulton said recently from her office at the St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church in Bristol, Indiana, where she was installed in 2014. “So, the thought that I would be wearing this collar would have been laughable for me in college.”
Those who know her now, probably couldn’t reconcile that background with the encouraging, selfless spiritual leader she has become; someone honored at this year’s Saint Ben’s reunion with the Benedictine Award for service to others.
Fulton tries to model service for her parishioners and the people of her community. She spearheads a mission to help the local food pantry, which is now part of a larger organization called The HUB (Hearts United for Bristol). In addition to volunteering and fundraising, she serves a pastoral role for the directors.
“They are underpaid and overworked, and I find myself often checking in with them just to say, ‘Are you OK?’” she said. “They’re dealing with some of the most painful situations, and I’m honored to talk, pray and serve them any way I can – as well as the people who walk in looking for help. And it helps me because I know the community. I see what people are struggling with and I’m able to go back to my congregation and try to address some of these problems like mental health and places to live.”
To provide outreach where it isn’t duplicated in the region, Fulton and her church entered a partnership with the LGBTQ Center of South Bend – 30 miles to the west – to support the drastically underserved LGBTQ+ population in Elkhart County. The church becomes a space for drop-ins on Friday nights for kids ages 12-18. They hang out, play games and Fulton – wearing a rainbow-themed shirt with a cross on it – tries to make a connection while letting the participants be themselves.
“We’re the only fully inclusive church in the area – we will marry and bury you, no matter who you are,” Fulton said. “As Christians, we are called to do more than tolerate one another. Christ is very clear. He tells us to love one another, including our enemies … that doesn’t mean we hold mushy-gushy feelings for one another, but we act with love.”
Her acts include spending one of her days off every week caring for her parents, both of whom suffer from dementia. She has a son with significant medical and mental health problems, and her family has taken in an 18-year-old friend of her daughter’s, whose family is unstable and unable to care for her. During a recent two-week period, Fulton conducted a funeral, a wedding, two confirmations and a baptism – all while she participated in a clergy retreat, her sanctuary was in disarray as its stained-glass windows were removed for restoration, and her mother was hospitalized.
“As is the case for a lot of Bennies who are taught it’s our duty to care for our families, there are a lot of women like me who are doing these daily acts of service unrecognized,” Fulton said. “All of that is just as important, I believe, as what I do as priest of this parish.”